St Andrew’s Anglican Church of Indooroopilly
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 24 February
Acts 1.14-17, 20-26
An unbroken chain of love ©Sue Wilton
The power of choice is an amazing thing. With it we exercise some semblance of control over our world and see in our choices evidence of our personal autonomy.
Today we celebrate the choice of Matthias amongst the apostles. The crowd of believers are gathered and agree to pray and cast lots, whereby Matthias’ name is added to restore the number to twelve.
It may seem a rather worldly and pragmatic approach to such a task of spiritual discernment, but it is nevertheless clear that the early Christians were not individualists choosing their own pathways, but a community following the way of Christ and finding that pathway together.
This way of being is quite counter cultural in the west, where the power of the individual holds a commanding place in our imaginations. Psychologists attest to the enormous power of our culture and environment over our social behaviour. I read recently of a study where young people were given the task of watching a fish tank and describing what they saw. Young Asians tended to scan the entire scene, while Westerners focussed on the dominant fish. When asked about the singular fish, the Westerner would more likely say, “It was the leader” while the Easterner would reference feelings of sadness for the fish that wasn’t part of the group. 1
Of course, while some environments may create more barriers to overcome, our capacity to live as community and in unity is not ultimately determined by our culture. This, in fact, is the power of true religion and the reason why Jesus could say that in following his way, his joy will live in us and our joy will be complete. We do not need to conform to the individualistic culture that surrounds us, but we can be transformed by the indwelling love of God to recognise and live into a shared life together. John’s Gospel points to the mystery of abiding love- of the God who has so united divinity and humanity that there is no discontinuity or disconnection in the chain of love.
Yet here this morning, on the surface in the story in our first reading we have an apparent rupture in the chain. Judas has turned and gone his own way, going down in history as the one who was cursed to betray Jesus. Maintaining the symbolic number of twelve apostles is apparently an important thing for the early church, so finding someone to step into where the direct line of apostolic authority had been broken was a priority task. It is interesting to note, of course, that this was not a tradition that continued. Tradition has it that most of the apostles, including Matthias, were martyred at different times for their faith, and yet there does not seem to be the same need to replace the one who had died.
Perhaps the understanding changed, or had it seemed to them that Judas had created a different kind of interruption that needed to be addressed?
Human beings love a scapegoat. How easy it is when we can unite together against a common enemy, joining our voices in collective rage. In looking upon the horror of the crucifixion of Jesus, it is all too easy to point the accusing finger of blame at Judas. Of course, down through history the finger of blame began to point at the Jewish people as being responsible for the execution, often conveniently forgetting that Jesus lived and died a faithful Jew. Such narratives have resulted in genocidal violence that has the convenience of being able to be justified at
Some of you may have noticed that where the Eucharistic prayer says “On the night when he was betrayed” I often copy others in using the phrase “handed over”. When we consider the original Greek, even though a word like “betrayed” could have been used, the text describing the events at Gethsemane use a word that really means ‘handed over’ or ‘surrendered’. If we move away from the label of ‘betrayer’, perhaps we may begin to see the other actors in this drama more clearly- the ones who ran away, the ones who hid and Peter who vehemently denied Jesus in his hour of need. Perhaps then we may be able to even see ourselves and embrace each other, with all our failures, as brother, as sister, as friend.
Some may say that in handing Jesus over to the violent forces of his day, Judas’ actions are more exquisitely tragic than those of one who simply lies or betrays a trust. In handing over Jesus, Judas betrays himself and surrenders himself to fragmentation of the kind where the self is divided within itself and so its fall is terrible.
Judas greeting Jesus with a kiss when it comes to that moment of handing over is a concrete and poignant example of Jesus’ words that people honour God with their lips while their heart is far from God.
But yet it is precisely this separation that Jesus has come to heal. It is for all those choices we make that separate our hearts from our actions, our highest aspirations from the everyday reality of our lives. It is precisely the need of humanity for a God who says “You did not choose me but I chose you” – this God who finds us in our state of internal division and separation from the Divine source of our being and from one another and yet brings healing and forgiveness before perhaps, we even recognise our need for it.
Can we experience ourselves as chosen for love?
Can we accept that the chain of love can never be broken?
Can we believe that that thing that we did, thought, said, or enacted is not sufficient to separate us from the love of God? This kind of courageous trust and choice in surrendering to the One who has already chosen us is the very definition of faith.
We have talked a lot about the revelation of God through this season of Epiphany, and the purpose of this revelation is revealed in the Gospel text. “So that the joy of Christ will be in us and our joy will be complete.” The chain of love is not something so fragile that we need to be constantly on our guard lest it be broken. It is rather a continuous loop of relationship in community, from the Father to the Son, and the Son to us and us to one another, so completing the circle of love. We don’t need to be leading anxious lives, desperately seeking to grasp on to our place of belonging or importance. Instead, we discover that love is not finite. It is revealed in endless giving and receiving as we become not individuals needing to compete and prove ourselves but friends moving effortlessly in the love of God. Jesus has made known to us the ways of God and we discover the beautiful truth that we truly understand what we have been given only when we give it away. As Jesus has loved us, so we love one another. It is the kind of love where there is no condemnation, no scapegoating, no exclusion. The kind of love where it is God’s choice, not our own faltering choices, that matters the most. It is the kind of love that is large enough to enfold us all- you, me, Peter, even Judas- and call us all into life in the unbroken chain of love where Jesus abides in the Father, we abide in Christ, and love is poured upon us so that we may give it away, again and again, for ever and ever.
So here in this place, with Matthias and all the saints, may we know this love. May we share this love. And may our joy be complete.
1 Will Storr, “The Controlling Force” in NewPhilosopher, Being Human: All About Us, ed. Zan Boag, #23, February- April 2019.